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Firefighter’s union sues city over department’s restructuring

Though the city’s first ever assistant fire chief was sworn in last month with much fanfare, not everyone was happy about it. And the city’s use of eminent domain to extend Inspiration Road at Expressway 83 hasn’t been welcomed by at least one area business. Both matters have landed the city in Hidalgo County District Court as a defendant in civil suits.


On May 3 Frank Cavazos and Desi Olivarez, on behalf of the Mission Professional Fire Fighters Association, sued the city and City Manager Martin Garza over the decision to eliminate one of four deputy chief positions in order to create the position of assistant fire chief. Last month Fire Chief Gilbert Sanchez appointed Robert R. Alvarez to the new position. In doing so the mayor and city council enacted a new ordinance effectively reorganizing the department’s chain of command.

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In its lawsuit the firefighter’s union contends the city violated the Fire Fighter and Police Civil Service Act when it created the position of assistant fire chief by abolishing one of four deputy fire chief positions.  The complaint alleges the Civil Service Act required the city to hold an eligibility examination to fill the deputy chief position within 90 days. Instead, the city abolished the position.


The complaint contends that Cavazos, a captain, should have been promoted to the rank of deputy chief when he was appointed the city’s fire marshal, the position Sanchez held before his promotion. But because the position had been eliminated he could not be promoted to the appropriate rank for fire marshal.


“Even if the Court disagrees with plaintiffs and finds the deputy chief position was abolished in good faith, the position was not abolished before the April 10 appointment of Gilbert Sanchez to fire chief,” the lawsuit states. “Accordingly the appointment created a vacancy that was required to be filled under City of Fort Worth v. Nyborg.”


The lawsuit contends both Cavazos and Olivarez, each captains, were both denied the opportunity to sit for promotional exams for the position of deputy chief in violation of the Civil Service Act.


“The Deputy Chief promotion would have created a vacancy in the captain rank, the filling of which would have created a vacancy in the lieutenant rank,” the lawsuit states. “This pattern would have continued down through all the ranks. Fire Department employees represented by plaintiff were entitled to promote into all the vacancies.”


The lawsuit asks the court to find the city’s decision to abolish the deputy fire chief position was not done in good faith and to declare null and void the ordinance that allowed it. It also seeks to force the city to hold promotion exams and to fill the fourth deputy fire chief vacancy created when Alvarez was appointed assistant fire chief. It also asks the court to order the city “to fill the resulting downstream vacancies, which will be created after the deputy chief vacancy is filled in accordance with the Civil Service Act.”


The lawsuit also seeks attorney’s fees for the plaintiffs and “such other relief, whether legal or equitable, to which Plaintiffs are entitled.”


While the mayor and council met in executive session during Monday’s council meeting to discuss the matter, Sanchez declined to comment on the lawsuit saying he would leave that up to city attorneys. Following the council meeting City Attorney Abiel Flores said he could not comment on pending litigation.


The answer was the same regarding the second lawsuit in which the company that owns the Valero Stripes convenience store on Inspiration Road just south of Expressway 83 claims the city wrongly acquired and destroyed property on the store’s west side during the Inspiration Road construction project. The recently completed project connects Inspiration Road under Expressway 83. Previously the north and south portions of the road ended at and abutted the expressway.


The lawsuit was filed by the Phoenix-based management company, Cole REIT Advisors III under a limited liability company called Cole VS Mission (Highway 83) TX, LLC.


In its lawsuit ‘Cole VS’ alleges the city incorrectly described the western boundary of the property when the city initiated eminent domain proceedings in County Court at Law. The lawsuit alleges the city trespassed when it removed several property improvements in the disputed area including a price sign, portions of a sprinkler system, landscaping, portions of a concrete curb, asphalt paving, a fire lane and portions of a concrete pad on the property’s far south side.


The lawsuit contends at the time building plans for the convenience store were submitted to the city the owner’s property boundaries were not disputed by the city.


The lawsuit contends that although the Court at Law granted the city eminent domain “the order does not provide the city possession of any property not legally described in the city’s Petition in Condemnation including but not limited to the disputed area.”


The lawsuit states the property owners did not grant the city permission to take its property and asks the city be ordered to pay for the property in question and reimburse the plaintiff’s court costs. The lawsuit does not state an amount being requested.  A call to the plaintiff’s attorney, Eddie Vassallo of Dallas, was not returned as of press time.


Following its executive session, pertaining to the property matter, the council gave authority for the mayor and city staff  “to execute all legal documents necessary to resolve this matter and proceed with finalizing acquisition of the effected property.”


As for the firefighter union’s lawsuit the council gave the city attorney authorization to represent the city in the matter or hire an outside attorney to handle it.

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